Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Eating my way through KL... And the slow destruction of Damansara Perdana

I can honestly say that, after all my time living here, I'm really not completely enamored of actual local Malaysian cuisine. It's all quite okay, but for a country that lies between the world-famous food of Thailand and the almost criminally underrated cuisine of Indonesia, I have found the food in Malaysia to be kind of uninspired. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy some local dishes, and there's no way I've tried everything, so there may yet be something out there that would thrill me. But for the most part, the cuisine here just seems to suffer by comparison to that of its neighbors.

When I say this, I'm only referring specifically to "indigenous" foods. Many of the foods available here are wonderful, but they mostly come from other cultures and regions. In that sense, KL can be a food-lover's paradise. Taiwanese, Chinese, Thai, Indian (north and south – the cuisine is markedly different), Japanese, Korean, Western (to varying degrees of authenticity, it has to be said)... there is no shortage of good restaurants in the KL area. A shortage of decent service, yes, but that's to be saved for another entry... :)

Being something of a creature of habit, I have gotten into a routine of visiting a few choice restaurants on a regular basis. I go for dim sum almost every weekend. This style of eating, hugely popular in Hong Kong, is thought to have originated in what is today the Guangdong province of southern China. Various dishes and dumplings, either steamed, pan-fried, or deep-fried, are served hot and fresh along with a pot of Chinese tea, an important part of any dim sum meal. Though I have frequented a number of dim sum restaurants in the area over the last couple of years, the place my friends and I always go now is called Jin Xuan, in Damansara Jaya. They have five outlets, but this one is among the best. The dumplings are all made fresh by hand onsite, and they do a booming business, especially on weekends. The quality of the food is very good, the prices are terrific (seldom more than about RM20 per person and you leave totally full), and even the service is good, particularly by Malaysian service standards. This explains the popularity of the place. Among my favorites are the siew mai (seasoned pork and shrimp in a dumpling wrap, topped with crab roe), something called a sharkfin dumpling, shown here in the round basket on the right, which is not made from shark fin, but so named because I guess it kind of resembles one? I don't know. I have a serious moral issue with shark fin soup, so I only order this because it's "shark fin" in name only. It's similar to the siew mai, but tastes a bit different, so I don't know... maybe different seasonings? I also love the pan-seared "potsticker" dumplings, served with shredded ginger and rice vinegar. Lo mai kai is another favorite... sticky rice, pressed in a mold with chunks of chicken, mushrooms, and a slice of glazed, pork sausage (called lap cheong). Very tasty! We get a big pot of tea (my favorites are the semi-fermented oolong teas like tikuanyin or cha wong) and just order the little baskets of food until we're full.

Another favorite of mine is Japanese food. For awhile now, my restaurant of choice has been Nihon Kai, just off of Old Klang Road, not far from my office in Midvalley. Their sashimi is great, the portions are generous, and the prices are incredibly reasonable (Japanese food tends to usually be on the pricey side by KL standards). One of my favorites to order is the sashimi don (pictured), a good-sized bowl of thick slabs of various sashimi on a bed of vinegared rice. It's served with a bowl of miso soup, and costs only RM26, a great price for such a fresh, generous selection of fish. Salmon butteryaki and crispy tempura are also great choices here.

However, recently, I discovered that the restaurant in my own neighborhood, called MAIU, had rolled out an everyday promotion where you can eat and drink all you want, ordering from a menu (not a buffet line), for a ridiculously low RM38 per person. It's just insane. The food there is outstanding... fresh, delicious, prepared and presented wonderfully. You just order from the menu of selections, and they keep bringing it. Sashimi, sushi, teppanyaki, soups, soba noodles, tempura, yakitori, tofu, salads, on and on... it's just an orgy of delicious free-flow Japanese cuisine, and all for barely more than US$12 per person. Their maki rolls are amazing, and in particular, the California maki is hands-down the best I've ever had. Do yourself a favor and enlarge these pics... if you're a fan of Japanese food, you will be drooling.

Korean food is also very easy to find here, owing to the fairly substantial Korean expat population in the city. I can't remember what this dish is called, but it was really tasty. Typical of Korean meals, there's an array of small dishes, too -- little tidbits and such. Very nice. This was at a restaurant in Midvalley; the Korean restaurants in the typical Korean enclaves like Ampang and Mont Kiara are even better, especially for Korean BBQ, which is delicious!

• • • • •

So in non-gastronomic news, back in January, I got a text message from the owner of my condo... "Ohhh so sorry to inform you, but I've decided to sell off my condo." Nice, right? Long story short, it indeed sold (rapidly, I might add), and the new owner does not wish to rent the unit out, so I have to move. Real estate transactions are painfully slow in Malaysia, however, so I still have a couple of months before I need to clear out, even though the unit sold in early March. So far, my search for a new place to live has been fruitless... and discouraging. I got lucky with my current place in that it was only perhaps the fourth place I viewed. So far now, I've looked at over a dozen, all unsuitable for one reason or another. I want to stay in the same area, even though MK Land are trying their level best to destroy Damansara Perdana. (Deep breath before the rant...)

Like all developers, they can't stand to see a single patch of land remain in its natural state. So, even though there is clearly no demand for new office space in the area (as evidenced by the vast number of currently empty shoplots), they're building a massive multi-block trade center, as well as not one, but TWO new 19-story office towers, and another substantial block to the new (and woefully underutilized) Neo Damansara. They're expanding and adding onto the already sprawling and sadly under-occupied Metropolitan Square. There are cranes everywhere you look as you enter the small township of Damansara Perdana. (Seriously, I think I eyeballed nine of them at last count. It's obscene.) They constructed another condo block in the mold of Ritze Perdana, unimaginatively calling this one "Ritze Perdana 2," like it's a sequel or something. Like its progenitor, most of the condos at RP2 are little 450-square-foot studios, vastly overpriced. They're also building a sequel to the stupendously big Armanee Terrace, which is at the complete opposite end of the size spectrum. These condos are all two-story units, each at 2,500 square feet or more. And even though they're 5-6 times the size of RP2, they're only 2.5 times the price, which really illustrates the insanity of paying over RM300K for a small studio apartment in PJ.

As if all this madness wasn't enough for the one tiny road we have in Damansara Perdana, Maxis is digging up the street to lay fiber optic cables for what I guess will finally be real broadband Internet (not the 700 KB/sec. rubbish they try to pass off as broadband now). And, in a final assault on what's rapidly becoming a not-so-pleasant place to live, MK Land are utterly destroying a vast swath of the hillside jungle near Armanee Terrace. It looks like a bomb was detonated there.. take a look. These are "then and now" pictures from roughly the same general vantage point, which is almost hard to believe. One picture was taken in November 2008; the other, just last week (click to enlarge for the full dose of despair). Residents and owners of Armanee Terrace and Perdana View condos have formed a "Save Our Hill" campaign at this point, but honestly, it seems a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has already left. The hill and jungle have been pretty much destroyed at this point already. Ahhh, progress. (That said, I'm happy to see that people at least do care that their neighborhood is being methodically eviscerated. If I had paid RM800,000 for a unit at the original Armanee Terrace, at least partly on the strength of the beauty and serenity of the adjacent jungle and hillside, I'd be furious at what's taking place there now.)

Further up the hill, the 88-unit Rafflesia development lumbers ever onward, at least as behind schedule as Armanee Terrace 2. The fact that a high-end luxury development was named for a giant, putrid, stinky flower isn't the most confusing thing, though. Here in Malaysia, they call these type of link houses "semi-Ds," standing for "semi-detached." This honestly makes no sense at all, even by odd UK standards, from which Malaysia takes most of its cues. (In the UK, a semi-D is two houses joined by a common wall. In the US, we call this a duplex, but here, "duplex" is used to refer to a double-story condo.) Anyway, the English language has a word already for this so-called semi-detached state: ATTACHED. A house cannot really be "semi-detached." It's either attached or it's detached. In the US, these units would be called townhouses or row houses. I guess they look nice enough for Malaysian homes, but their selling price is completely insane — in the neighborhood of RM2 to 3 million per unit. This in a country where the average annual income is about RM25,000... that's nearly a million US dollars for a townhouse. I just don't understand this at all. (Okay, my bad... I got some pics, and in looking closely at these houses, they're not like row houses after all; even though they're literally only a couple of meters apart, they are technically not joined, so each house is really one half of a whole, thus meeting the UK definition of "semi-detached," if not the English language's definition. I can still make fun of the name, though, right?)

I really don't think Damansara Perdana is going to be a nice place to live in a very few years from now. They're completely overbuilding it without improving the infrastructure at all. There is still only one road in and out, and really no way to expand or add to it. Further, there doesn't seem to be any demand for this level of development. The vacancy rate in the existing business centers is already so high, one wonders what the hell they're thinking by building MORE commercial centers. For my part, I keep hoping the exposed hillside where they've done so much damage will all just collapse and bury all of their heavy equipment, destroy their fancy sales center, and scuttle their evil plans.